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The Joan Collins Chronicles: Including Her Tutorial on How to Seat a Star

The Joan Collins Chronicles: Including Her Tutorial on How to Seat a Star

Featured, Film, Television

I have always been fascinated by Joan Collins.  An actress, writer, OBE and diva nonpareil, Miss Collins is and always has been, above all else, the very essence of a star.  No matter the prevailing taste of a given era, for me, Joan has always existed as a glorious throwback to the celebrities of yesteryear—this is irrespective of the relative merits of her body of work—variable as it is.  Perhaps more than any other celebrity I’ve had the nervous pleasure of befriending, Joan most closely resembles both the positive and negative aspects of her persona: formal; haughty; irascible and absurdly narcissistic; but also intelligent; poised; humorous and—when she’s so inclined—exceedingly charming.  Not surprisingly, she is also a terrific raconteur and will gladly hold court telling the most incredible stories about just about any name you throw at her.  As you will see, in addition to her many talents she is, perhaps, the foremost authority on the acceptable way to seat a star.

Joan Collins studio portrait
A typically stunning portrait of Ms. Collins, circa mid-1950s

But when she’s irritated, run for cover.  Though it’s hard not to appreciate someone who foments a resentment with the same enthusiasm most of us apply to the cultivation of spiritual growth, I think Joan depends on conflict as a mechanism to assert her imperious Joan-ness.  When this doesn’t happen organically, the star is wholly capable of manufacturing it effortlessly and with great flair.  She does this so intuitively and with such brio, that although it’s really not an attribute, it’s hard not to marvel at her skill as you watch her elevating a minor annoyance to a major conflict in less time than it takes to pick up a salad fork.

Joan Collins with hat
Joan in all her Nolan Miller “Dynasty”-era splendor.

While most folks try to avoid conflict, for Joan it is sport and one she’s rather good at.   Joan wasn’t always so cheery.  If she was physically uncomfortable or something insulted or displeased her in some way, there would be consequences.  One time in an old-school private club in London, she became enraged that a younger man was permitted to break its “jackets only” rule and proceeded to go on a fifteen minute rant about the “death of civility.”  Once I watched her bitch to Sean Connery, who was at the next table (“really Sean, can you believe what is happening, how lax things have become, why don’t you remember…”), and to the maitre d’ who ended up reprimanding the hapless gentleman and providing a jacket for him just to end the diatribe.  It was both awesome and awful to witness.

Before I knew her, I was a fan. When I was very young, I adored her guest spot as the arch-villainess Siren on TVs Batman, wherein she was able to immobilize people just by singing a particularly high, piercing note.  My boyfriend Ritchie insists that I actually have this ability myself and if I do, perhaps I owe it all to Joan. Like the population at large, I lost track of Joan for a few years during the 1970s, but Miss Joan is a great star and like all great stars, she returned.  First, in a series of horrible late-1970s pulpy films penned by sister Jackie (The Stud, The Bitch), and then—memorably—in the mid-1980s as Alexis Morrell Carrington Colby Dexter Rowan on the prime time soap Dynasty.  This role was a major cultural moment for Collins, not just because she single-handedly brought camp back, but because, at that time, the idea of a woman over 40 being sexy was considered daring and new.  Joan rode that wave until the early 1990s, when it summarily crashed on to the flannel shores of the Grunge Era, leaving a beach strewn with shoulder pads and backcombed wigs.

I loved Joan in Dynasty not just because she was so over-the-top but because her dialogue, replete with an endless string of SAT-caliber words, reminded me of the highly literate studio films of the 1930s and 1940s—an altogether better time for actresses. Somewhat of a wordsmith herself, Joan capitalized on her comeback by writing a surprisingly engaging memoir called Past Imperfect, wherein she did not refrain from dishing the dirt on everyone she ever met.  My friend Elisa and I both read the book in the summer of 1984 while pursuing a course of study that, in an early example of repurposing, primarily involved smoking hash through the cover of Joan’s life story.

Joan Collins "Past Imperfect"
My original copy of “Past Imperfect.”

It was easy: we simply stuck a pin through Joan’s eye and, using a jar, transformed the book into a vessel to smoke hash.  As the days turned to weeks, Joan’s face became darker and darker from the resin, which made us feel very naughty.  When we weren’t in class, which was mostly, Elisa and I would spend hours reading passages from the tome to each other.  One of Joan’s ex-husbands, Anthony Newley, was a legendary Broadway composer.  We loved when Joan quoted his songs:

“Why Do You Try and Change Me”
(per Joan: “a hard-driving rock song, better performed by someone with the vocal strength of Petula Clark!”)

You tell me you love me/But if you love me Baby/Why do you try and change me?/I don’t want to change you baby”

 

“Chalk and Cheese”

“How did you get into my horoscope/You funny irascible lovable dope/It isn’t clear from the stars that you haven’t a hope with me?/Anyone else would have seen at a glance it could never be/Chalk and cheese, we’re as different as chalk and cheese.”

 

When we left London I felt guilty for what we’d done to Joan’s face and I actually cleaned the residue of our misspent summer off her face, though traces remain to this day.  Sadly her right eye will never recover and forever serve as evidence of our misspent summer in Tavistock Square.

When I began working with Denise Rich in early 2002 I got to know Joan personally.  She was quite close with my then-boyfriend Kieron and was therefore predisposed to liking me.   I was grateful for this because the alternative could create stress.  Joan was like a cat—if she smelled fear things could get bad fast (like they did for the man at the restaurant)—or as they did for Krystle Carrington before the cat fight in the pool, (“Krystle, if Blake really loved you, then why did he castigate you in front of the lily pond?”)

Joan was 20th Century Fox’s answer to Elizabeth Taylor, Collins’ nemesis.

The first time I met her, Kieron brought me to have lunch with her at The Ivy in London, just the three of us. By 2002, after many years in the music business, my flair for sincere bordering on semi-obsequious flattery was a well-developed skill that served me well.  Though Joan was, perhaps, the mother of all divas, I was helped immeasurably by her appreciation of my vocabulary, which was in full-flourishing Rococo mode whenever I was in her presence.

Joan and her husband, the warm and wonderful Percy Gibbons, peruse the coverage of their wedding in this publicity photo.  It’s staged naturalness reminds me of the old Life magazine portraits of stars relaxing at home.  Even this portrait is a complete throwback.
During my visits with her, which were numerous, we would have long conversations about old movies or her most favorite subject, Joan Collins.  She was a great raconteur and I would listen with rapt attention as she told me about her early days in Hollywood or just complained about whatever was bothering her that day.  Her affect was softened immeasurably by two things: her friendly and ever-present husband Percy, and her biting sense of humor.  To wit, one summer night in 2003 she recounted this story about her (then) recent marriage to Percy to me after a lovely alfresco dinner at her home in the south of France.

“Oh darling, the press makes such a huge deal about our age difference.  I don’t really understand why they persist in hectoring me with all these silly questions and I truly can’t begin to make sense of their fixation as to why a woman of a certain age would marry a man thirty years her junior.  You see I’ve told the press repeatedly that before we married, Percy and I discussed it at length and I really, truly thought about the risks and consequences of marrying a younger man I decided finally:  we’re getting married and fuck it, if he dies he dies!

I later heard someone else tell the exact same story, which I assumed Joan had actually come up with herself, but it didn’t really matter, she told it like it was her idea; and that’s what actresses do.

Joan could always be depended upon to show up at Denise’s parties.  She lived just down the street and, ironically, if she was in town we could count on her to get the star-quotient of an event up a notch.  Denise reciprocated by supporting Joan’s projects.  For example, when she wrote her romance novel Misfortune’s Daughters, Denise hosted a luncheon to celebrate its publication.  Much to Joan’s pleasure, Denise ordered little butter cookies with the image of the book.   Because I save everything, I still have the cookie, which is now a rancid reminder of a lovely afternoon.
My Joan Collins cookie is a souvenir from Denise’s luncheon celebrating the release of Joan’s book. I can safely say this is the only “Misfortune’s Daughters” cookie in existence!
Joan, Denise and myself, circa 2004. Oh Denise, you always screwed me in the pictures (in photos with celebrities she would always pull away from me and toward the star so I would look like I was trying to get into her picture).

The most shocking/memorable display of the Collins pique was at Denise’s daughter Daniella’s wedding, around 2005.  It was a big affair held at Chelsea Piers.  I hung out with Joan and Percy during cocktails and we had a smoke indoors (Joan never paid any attention to plebeian things like smoking laws) and she seemed to be in fine fettle. When the guests moved on to the ballroom for dinner, a kerfuffle ensued.  Kieron anxiously approached me and Denise.

Kieron: Joan Collins is very upset.  She’s having a fit at table 6.

Denise:  (gauzily) Oh nooooo, what’s wrong?

Kieron:  I’m not sure.

Denise:  Well get over there and fix it!

Kieron:  No, no, send David… she loves him.

David:  Kieron, why me? I was just starting to have relax, this is your party!

Kieron:  No David, you must, please go over and figure out what the problem is and then comfort her.

 

I acceded Kieron’s directive and cautiously approached Joan’s table.  As I came closer, I noticed that Joan seemed agitated and close to tears.  In fact, Joan appeared to be drowning in pool of hurt feelings with only her finely tuned sense of entitlement as a flotation device.  Percy leaned over her in what can only be assumed was a familiar posture of supplication.

David:  (meekly) Joan, is everything okay?  What’s the problem?

Joan:  (distraught and terse).  David, yes.  You can see . I’m in a state. Really, this is unconscionable and if this isn’t remedied I’m afraid I will just have to leave.

David:  (soothingly) Tell me…let me help you.

Joan:   (growing larger now) Well, I’ve come all the way out here, practically in New Jersey because I wanted to be here for Denise and it’s simply not acceptable.  I don’t mean to be a harridan but Denise of all people simply should know better by now how to properly seat a star.

David: (flummoxed) The seating displeases you?

Joan:  (at full strength and completely serious ) I’m sorry to be on such a rant but this is simply unacceptable.  Certainly Kieron should know how to seat a star even if Denise doesn’t!  Look at this table!  Right here by the door to the kitchen?

David:  (tapdancing).  I’m so..so..sorry Joan.  Please, please tell me how to seat a star and maybe I can do something! Joan:   You’ll have to do it fast because the night is ruined.  Well look around you, David.  I don’t mean to be immodest but I am clearly the biggest star in the room.  Star Jones is not a star. Lorraine Bracco is not a star, an actress maybe,  but let’s be honest, I am the biggest star in the room and look at this seating arrangement!  Near to the kitchen?

David:  Of course!  I’m so sorry!  I can’t speak for Denise but I think that what they were trying to do is spread the stars around the room so—

Joan: —I don’t care, David, it’s wrong!  Here is how you seat a star: A star must be seated next to the dance floor, in the center of the room and no matter what, A STAR MUST ALWAYS BE SEATED WITH OTHER STARS!

Joan with Percy and Mr. and Mrs. Jason Binn at Daniella Rich’s 2004 wedding.  Though Joan seems happy—remember she is an actress—this photo was taken mere moments before her historic meltdown and subsequent tutorial on how to seat a star (note the food server and the star’s precarious proximity to the kitchen).
It seemed quite incredible to me at the time, but as I write this I have to admit there was a certain logic to what she taught me.  Joan was the biggest star in the room and it is never particularly nice for anyone, let alone someone accustomed to privilege, to be seated near to the kitchen or restroom, and  it only makes sense that a star’s proximity to the dance floor really just ensures that the star will actually dance, which—let’s face it—probably  makes everyone feel that the party is actually better than if a star is sitting in a corner sulking.
That was probably the last time I saw Joan, but I’ve got a lot of wonderful, vivid memories, many pictures, a rancid cookie, a hash-stained paperback and—should I ever again possibly need to know—the absolute last word on how a star indeed—a very great star—should be seated.

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